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Delbert Wenzl says land that’s been converted to native plants near his Bloomington home looks trashy. Cities are replacing manicured fields with native plants for environmental reasons – from controlling erosion to reducing use of chemicals – and to save taxpayer money.

Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

Delbert Wenzl stood on parkland near his Bloomington home that’s been converted to native plants. Metro-area cities are going with native plantings for environmental and financial reasons, drawing praise from some residents while others say they prefer a neater look.

Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

Public land: Some want neat, some favor natural

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA
  • Star Tribune
  • August 17, 2012 - 9:13 PM

When Delbert Wenzl looks at the clumps of sumac, wild raspberries and evergreens growing under power lines near his Bloomington home, he doesn't see a no-mow, no-water, no-fertilizer landscape.

He sees junk.

"It's nothing but a lot of brush," Wenzl said this week, dismissing the plantings with a wave of his hand. "It gets bigger and bigger and trashier and trashier. When do you stop it?"

Wenzl is known to Bloomington officials as a man who prefers his public spaces mowed and manicured. But he may be tilting at windmills as more cities plant prairies around government buildings, choose native shrubs and cut back on mowing in parks.

Cities from Minneapolis to Elk River have converted medians and hilly parkland to native landscapes. Native plantings don't need mowing, watering or fertilizing. They curb erosion and absorb runoff before it reaches lakes and ponds. Cities hope that what's good for the environment eventually will pay off for municipal budgets, too.

The change isn't cheap. Most cities hire professionals to design and install native plantings. Even prairies need weeding and maintenance the first couple of years, and perhaps burning later.

New native plantings can look weedy and unkempt, becoming a target of complaints. That happened in Edina, where last year the city's new Public Works building was landscaped with a rain garden and native grasses. People complained even though the building is in a nonresidential area.

A year later, people are still complaining. But the city is standing by the native landscape, said Wayne Houle, city engineer.

"It actually came in pretty well in the rain garden, but we still have some weed management [in the grass area]," he said. "It looks a lot better."

Prairie takes time

Burnsville, too, has dealt with complaints about more than three acres of prairie plantings and native grasses since they were installed at City Hall and the Ice Center in 2010 and 2011. Terry Schultz, director of parks, recreation and natural resources, said the city put up explanatory signs to try to deflect criticism. Nonetheless, people complained.

"Last year the wildflowers kind of kicked in, and we started to get calls saying that it was starting to look pretty," he said. "But we still get a few [complaining] calls."

Burnsville estimates the landscape will pay for itself in saved maintenance costs within 10 to 12 years.

Richfield and Golden Valley are involving residents in discussions about which city-owned areas might get native plantings. In Golden Valley, converting little-used park areas is proposed partly for environmental reasons but also because park maintenance staff is stretched thin with the addition of new ball fields, said Public Works Director Jeannine Clancy. Neighborhood meetings will be held in the fall or winter.

Richfield has let half a dozen hilly areas and slopes in parks go wild because they were difficult to mow and weren't used much. In the winter, the city will discuss more changes with a citizen commission.

"You really have to check with people nearby," said Jim Topitzhofer, recreation services director. "Some are receptive to it, and some aren't."

Dealing with pushback

In Bloomington, about 70 acres have been added to the no-mow list over the past few years, including eight acres on Bush Lake that are now prairie, as well as small areas near playgrounds.

Sometimes residents object. Paul Edwardson, who focuses on park maintenance for the city, said, "If we get pushback, we put it back on the mowing schedule. ... When people are adamant about it and the areas are small, it's not worth rocking the boat any more."

Karl Keel, Bloomington's public works director, believes acceptance of the new landscapes is increasing as aesthetics shift. He said the city has also cut back on chemical use and will continue to look for places where the landscape doesn't need that manicured look.

"It's a tough balancing act, because there are some folks in our community who support that 1950s aesthetic, and others who like a prairie or nature look," he said.

Wenzl, who lives on 103rd Street next to a long stretch of open land where Xcel Energy power lines run, will not be swayed in his opposition to the native plants. A vital and jovial 85 years old, he has lived in his house since 1969 and has photos of what the area looked like years ago, with short mowed grass and a few trees. The mowed stretch of power-line corridor near his home, which Bloomington maintains as parkland, has patches of prairie and clumps of native shrubs.

Those spots are traps for garbage and golf balls, Wenzl said, and a source of unwanted seeds that sprout in his yard. He wants volunteer trees removed and old lilacs trimmed. Though the nearest sumac and other bushes are 25 feet from his property line, he said they're getting closer every day.

He has visited Xcel offices, knows all the Bloomington officials and has a fat file to make his case. While one neighbor gathered her children and plucked garbage from the shrubs, Wenzl has been unable to rally any other neighbors to his cause.

He will keep trying. He said he doesn't care if the plantings are considered nature-friendly.

"To me, they are lowering the bar in the area and just letting it go," he said. "I would like to take my chainsaw and cut the darn things down."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan

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